By Jyoti Malhotra
Jul 23, 2012
India is searching its soul after the Supreme Court threw out a petition last month seeking affirmative action for Muslims and Christians in educational institutions and jobs. The Court's decision found that the quotas policy violated the secular grain of India's constitution.
The move reverberated around the country, putting into jeopardy the ruling Congress party's December promise to create a 4.5 per cent sub-quota for poor Muslims within a wider 27 per cent quota that already exists for "backward caste" Hindus. It also threw into question the future of Muslim students and others who had already benefited from the rule (including more than 400 admitted into the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology).
Certainly, the Supreme Court's decision to throw out the petition has evoked great anxiety among many of India's Muslims. Several Muslim intellectuals believe that a constitutional amendment is needed to allow the poorest Muslims to benefit from entitlements guaranteed to poor Hindus. Just because Muslims had converted from Hinduism did not mean that they were not associated with the caste they had once been part of, these intellectuals argue.
Affirmative action for those who occupy the lowest rungs in the caste ladder is as old as independence. These quotas were enacted to compensate lower-caste Hindus for centuries of social and economic oppression.
In 1990, several Muslim groups were part of a list that fought a social - and sometimes violent - struggle to increase quotas. But the same Muslims were not allowed to participate in the caste benefits because the constitution, an avowedly secular document, did not want to be seen to encourage Hindu converts or to challenge Islam's ideal of equality. (In fact, four states - Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Bihar - have implemented quotas for Muslims for several years, but on the basis of economic considerations).
The Supreme Court's decision last month actually came after the Andhra Pradesh high court had dismissed the Andhra government's decision to institute its own 4.5 per cent sub-quota for Muslims. The Andhra court threw out the order because the government did not show proof that Muslims who would have benefited from the sub-quota were as poor or economically depressed as their Hindu counterparts.
The idea of caste benefits for poor and downtrodden Hindus, to help them to join the rapidly modernising world, has been largely accepted in India. To expand the canvas to include poor and downtrodden Muslims, the civil rights libertarian Rajinder Sachar studied the social and economic condition of Indian Muslims. In 2006, he found that large sections were, in fact, substantially worse off than most other Indians, including Dalits and lower caste Hindus.
The finding of the Sachar Committee report, which formed the basis of the petition that was thrown out by the Supreme Court, was like a cold shower. For 15 years, as the economy grew by leaps and bounds, India's middle class had begun to lull itself into believing that it would soon join the ranks of the rich and powerful developing nations.
But for many Indian Muslims, this was a fallacy. Mr Sachar - a Hindu lawyer from Pakistan's Punjab, who emigrated to India during partition - pointed out that India's Muslims, comprising 14 per cent of the population (Dalits comprise 16 per cent, but have access to 22.5 per cent of quotas) were severely under-represented in India's bureaucracy, its police, its military and even in politics.
"Muslims," the report read, "were more likely to be poor, illiterate, and unhealthy and to have trouble with the law than other Indians." They exhibited "deficits and deprivation" in most development indices. Adding to the "development deficit" was the widely held perception that Muslims were discriminated against.
Mr Sachar suggested quotas, but more importantly, called for the creation of an equal opportunities commission. Those who had fallen behind, even as parts of the country grew rich quickly, needed to be pulled up by their bootstraps, taking caste, class, community, gender, economic deprivation as well as religion into account.
In the debate, parties such as the Hindu nationalist BJP and the Shiv Sena were opposed to extending quotas to Muslims; the Congress and several others were in favour.
As Zoya Hasan, a political scientist and former member of India's National Commission for Minorities noted: "The constitution was written in the shadow of India's partition and its luminaries were determined to protect the country from similar events. But in these intervening decades, India has changed so much ... I believe the constitution is a capacious enough document to articulate that social change and lean in favour of the disadvantaged, irrespective of their religion."
Ms Hasan and several others believe the writing is on the wall. General elections are two years away, but India's Muslims are already looking for leaders who will speak for them. Those willing to help fulfil Muslim aspirations will be treated like heroes. Those that don't could be confined to the dustbin of history.
Jyoti Malhotra is a political and foreign affairs analyst based in Delhi